Former regent's libel suit against U. of Nebraska-Lincoln newspaper dismissed

NEBRASKA — A judge dismissed a libel suit Wednesday against the University of Nebraska’s student newspaper after the plaintiff, a former Board of Regents member, failed to satisfy his burden of proof in the four-year-old lawsuit.

Former Nebraska Regent Robert J. Prokop originally filed the lawsuit in October 2007 alleging a 2006 editorial in the Daily Nebraskan newspaper libeled him. The editorial, titled “Regents must be held to a higher standard,” accused Prokop of copying passages from a book in a guest column he submitted while a regent in the 1970s.

Prokop’s column never ran in the Daily Nebraskan but did in the Douglas County Gazette. According to the Daily Nebraskan, the paper published an article in 1972 comparing the Douglas County Gazette article to the book “Homosexuality: Disease or Way of Life?” which sparked controversy on campus. 

More than three decades later, Prokop lost a bid for a seat on the University of Nebraska Board of Regents after the 2006 editorial ran. The lawsuit claimed the newspaper “falsely, maliciously and illegally” printed the editorial containing “false, scandalous, illegal, defamatory and malicious statements.”

Shawn Renner, attorney for the Daily Nebraskan, said Prokop — who represented himself in the trial — failed to meet the legal standard for libel in Nebraska: that the published information was wrong and the writers had doubts of the information’s accuracy.

“The judge found insufficient evidence of either falsity or actual malice to submit the case to the jury,” Renner said, “and under Nebraska law that means she found that no reasonable juror could have found in favor of Dr. Prokop on the evidence he presented.”

After Prokop rested in the case, Renner moved for a directed verdict, which District Court Judge Jodi L. Nelson granted.

Nelson previously declined to award summary judgment in the newspaper’s favor in September 2010 stating, “the court finds that genuine issues of material fact exist regarding the truth or falsity of the statements made in the article.”

In trial, Renner said Prokop claimed he sent a disclaimer to the Douglass County Gazette that part of his article copied the book, but the newspaper did not publish it.

Prokop could not be reached for comment.

Dan Shattil, general manager of the Daily Nebraskan, said he never saw any basis for concluding that the student editors published the 2006 editorial knowing that Prokop did not plagiarize, which is what Prokop had to show to establish that the piece was published with “malice.”

“We’re obviously happy the verdict went our way,” he said, adding he wished Nelson had thrown the case out as frivolous last year at the summary judgment stage. The judge did summarily dismiss a separate case Prokop filed against Jim McClurg, who won the regent position.

Shattil said the paper is semi-independent from the school, as it receives some student fees. But the paper was responsible for the $5,000 insurance deductible to pay for court fees and will be seeing an increase in premiums because of the suit.

Prokop has 30 days as of the dismissal to appeal the ruling.

Daily Nebraskan, Nebraska, news, University of Nebraska